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Book Reveals Flaws of Players in Bribery Case

File Photo
Mississippi attorney Richard Scruggs (left), seen with lobbyist John Raffaelli, is the focus of a book, “The Fall of the House of Zeus,” about his trial for attempted bribery of a judge.

By the mid-2000s, Scruggs seemed to have it all — a family, incredible riches, a flourishing law practice and statewide, even national, fame — but his downfall came because of a mix of greed and government overzealousness, and Wilkie has chosen to let the reader decide who is to blame for Scruggs’ current position.

The bribery case that led to Scruggs, his son and five others entering guilty pleas in 2008 began unethically, but perhaps legally — a Scruggs associate, Tim Balducci, went to speak to Judge Henry Lackey at his home to advocate for a favorable ruling in a standing case involving Hurricane Katrina. Lackey, who detested Scruggs, interpreted the meeting as an intent to bribe him, and he contacted the FBI.

From there, the FBI built a case against Scruggs and his associates by using a series of wiretaps, which Wilkie gained access to during the course of his research. Wilkie said, “I got them the old-fashioned way: Someone slipped them to me.”

The case appeared to be a nonstarter on several occasions, but the FBI pushed Lackey to continue trying to build evidence by appearing to request a bribe. Eventually, the judge succeeded, and Balducci handed Lackey an envelope containing $40,000 cash. From there, the dominoes started to fall, and seven people — all lawyers — were eventually sentenced to prison in a situation that they viewed as entrapment. The crimes that the group pleaded guilty to ranged from bribery of a judge, the most serious, to misprision of felony — knowing about a crime and failing to report it, essentially — the least serious. 

“I try to let the readers draw their own conclusions without getting on a soapbox, but I think there were certainly flaws on all sides in this story,” Wilkie said. “It is a book with few — if any — heroes.”

Wilkie was uniquely positioned to author this book because of his intimate connections to Mississippi. Wilkie grew up in the state, attended the University of Mississippi, often wrote about the state during his long journalism career and has lived in Mississippi since retiring from the Boston Globe in 2000. Just as relevant, Wilkie had developed personal relationships years earlier with many of the people involved in Scruggs’ downfall.

Wilkie said that of the 34 characters listed in the preface, he knew 18 personally before the case made news. For instance, Wilkie studied at Ole Miss with Lott and Cochran, went to the same high school as the judge who ruled against Scruggs in court, and used to share an office with one of the FBI agents who launched the investigation.

He met Scruggs in 1998 as part of a story for the Boston Globe — one that Wilkie described as “not particularly flattering” — and the two remained friendly afterward. 

“The fact that I am a Mississippian, that I knew these people, that I had a track record — I would like to think — as a credible journalist, people trusted me not so much as a favor to me, but to ensure that their side of the story was reflected in the book,” Wilkie said. “That’s why Dick Scruggs eventually agreed to talk to me at length.”

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